Northern Ireland

Belfast festival funding 'carve up' criticised by Alliance

Twelfth of July Orange Order parade Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Orangefest, organised by the Orange Order, is among the latest festivals to get funding

Belfast festivals are being used as a "political football" by unionist and nationalist councillors in order to "carve up" funds," it has been claimed.

Alliance Party councillor Nuala McAllister said arts organisations were "being played" by elected members after the latest decision to allocate money.

She criticised a vote to give thousands of pounds to four festivals organised in mainly unionist areas of Belfast.

Last month, her party queried plans to award £200,000 to Féile an Phobail.

"It looks like a complete carve up," the former lord mayor of Belfast told BBC News NI.

"It looks like a 'one for me and one for you' when it comes to festivals yet again within Belfast.

"It completely undermines the process that [we use to] allocate funding and it undermines confidence in the arts sector."

Image caption Irish folk band the Wolfe Tones played at last year's Féile an Phobail

The councillor spoke out after attending a meeting of Belfast City Council's City Growth and Regeneration Committee on Wednesday night.

Committee members voted to award funding to Orangefest; the East Side Arts Festival; the CS Lewis Festival and the Greater Shankill Winter Festival.

The £200,000 for Féile an Phobail - also known as the West Belfast Festival - was also approved by councillors on the committee.

They were the latest in a series of festival funding announcements that have caused controversy over how hundreds of thousands of pounds of ratepayers' money is being distributed.

'Sneaky and last-minute'

Four of the latest applicants were recommended at the suggestion of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the proposals were supported by both DUP and Sinn Féin councillors.

Ms McAllister and independent councillor Kate Mullan voted against the grants but other parties abstained, so it was passed.

The Alliance Party representative criticised the timing and what she described as a lack of detail in the DUP motion.

"There was a last-minute proposal put on the table to use the rest of the £95,000 on four other festivals named by the DUP, with absolutely no reason as to why they should be allocated this sum of money," she said.

Ms McAllister claimed it was "sneaky to just drive it in, last minute" and described the festival funding process as a "complete mess".

'More balance'

Councillor Lee Reynolds, the DUP's group leader on Belfast City Council, told BBC News NI he was "surprised" by her complaint and accused the Alliance Party of "hypocrisy".

He claimed the Alliance Party had been notified as early as last week that other funding requests would be considered and added it was "perfectly permissible" under council rules to put "special requests" before committee members for consideration.

"We had groups that we wanted to support and they [Alliance] had groups that they wanted to support," Mr Reynolds said, adding that the DUP's proposals received more votes.

He insisted that Wednesday's allocations had resulted in "much more balance, a better geographical spread and a wider range of events" in the successful applications.

Where is the money going?

The committee was tasked with deciding how to allocate a total of £320,000 to support festivals and events across the city during the next financial year.

As well as granting £200,000 to Féile an Phobail, the committee had already agreed to give £25,000 to Belfast International Arts Festival.

On Wednesday night, committee members voted to award £40,000 each to the Orangefest; the East Side Arts Festival and the CS Lewis Festival, also in the east of the city.

The Greater Shankill Winter Festival has been allocated £45,000.

The DUP councillor also pointed out that the grants were not unusual or unexpected as the East Side Arts Festival and CS Lewis event received similar funding last year.

He added that the council has provided emergency funding to Orangefest events in the past and this year it was merely taking action in a more "timely fashion".

But Ms McAllister said the vote had left many arts organisation unable to apply for council funding.

She added that the successful applicants "may be worthy festivals within their own right but so are the many others that go on within the city of Belfast who did not get a look-in at all".

"They are being played by council and they're being used as a political football."

She told the programme that her party intends to raise the issue at a meeting of the full council.

A council spokesman told BBC News NI that the committee's funding decision was "subject to ratification by the council on 4 March".

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